Zappa (13): Scott’s 19

[my response to Jeff Pike]

Great list, Jeff. I like, and in some cases love, most of what I know from it (“Aybe Sea” — nice one!), and look forward to listening to a few I either haven’t heard, or just don’t know yet by name. My Zappa intake right now is an oversized iTunes playlist which I often listen to in shuffle mode; I’m not always diligent about noting what it is I’m hearing, especially if it’s something I’ve fallen asleep to on the couch.

A few brief comments before I get to my list.

1) It’s interesting that you cite Fillmore East as your cutoff point. Ben Watson, in Frank Zappa’s Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play notes that the Flo & Eddie period was when a large subset of early Zappa fans dropped off the map (something borne out by a couple recent commenters here as well). Watson proceeds to make a strong (though hardly uncritical) case for much of that material, touting the documentary-like ethos behind it, but I don’t have the stomach for it myself. It’s probably (possibly) less about how gross it is for me than about how unfunny the routines are — but more than either, I just can’t get into the sound of these guys yukking and yakking it up on stage for several uninterrupted minutes. Whatever was driving Zappa’s musical aesthetic during this phase, safe to say it just doesn’t jibe with my own.

2) I’m curious if you had so dissociated yourself from Zappa’s music by then that you skipped over Apostrophe and Overnight Sensation? Those were pretty big albums in their day (my brother owned, and often played, the latter), and I’ve definitely come around to the better parts of each (though I’ve always loved “I’m the Slime,” one of a handful of Zappa-for-non-Zappaphile cuts in his catalog).

3) Similarly, I’m interested in hearing more about your 200 Motels experience — that is, should you care to relive that allegedly scarring episode. Haven’t seen or heard it myself. The only Zappa movie moment I can reference (Zappa and a horse, I seem to recall) is his droll appearance in Head, a humorous walk-on in an otherwise tedious excursion.

4) Yeah, I’m a fan of Zappa’s guitar playing, too. I even kind of dig the insane indulgence (exceedingly generous indulgence for some fans) of his Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar series, though not enough to list anything below (“Inna Gadda Stravinsky” is a cool song title, though). Don’t know how FZ ranks among guitar god aficionados on the scale of musicological-virtuosity yada-yada, but to my ears, what he achieves tone-wise — or maybe I mean effects-box-wise? — is often stunning (see #10 and #13 below).

So, my list. Just for consistencies sake, I’ll match your 19, though I could’ve gone 15, could’ve gone 25. This is less my all-time faves than the cream of my current Zappa playlist — the stuff I return to and/or think about most often. I’ll list them alphabetically because I wouldn’t know how to order them otherwise, but just for the record, either “Brain Police” or “Flower Punk” would be my actual #1, at least tonight.

1. “America Drinks and Goes Home” (1967) (Nifty YouTube accompaniment.)
2. “Any Way the Wind Blows” (1966)
3. “Aybe Sea” (1970)
4. “Disco Boy” (1976) – Lest anyone think I’m above such juvenilia, the punchline here (“It’s disco love tonight!”) does make me laugh. Zappa & disco is a tempting sub-theme to delve into at some point. Unfortunately, a critical piece of historical evidence, his late ’70s appearance on Denny Terio’s Dance Fever, has apparently been removed from YouTube.
5. “Flower Punk” (1968)
6. “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” (1966)
7. “I Don’t Even Care” (1985) – With Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson on vocals. Two-and-a-half minutes too long, but it’s fairly bracing r&b-garage rock.
8. “I Was in a Drum” (1994) – From the posthumous, mountainous, very hard-to-climb Civilization Phase III. I’ve rarely gotten off on Zappa’s stiff-as-nails Synclavier work (mind you, I’ve probably heard about a fifth of what he’s released) but this is a swell little exercise: Sandy Denny via Varese (not that I’ve gotten off on Varese much, either).
9. “If We’d All Been Living in California…” (1969) – I’m stretching the definition of a “song” here, but given how much spoken word stuff appears across Zappa’s entire recorded output, it’s all fair game (a true “best of Zappa” list would also include TV appearances, books, political statements, that NPR documentary narrated by Beverly D’Angelo in which she can’t stop referring to him as a genius, etc.). A fascinating bit of audio-verité, this: Everything You’ll Ever Need to Know About the Music Business in 1:14. (Listen up, children.)
10. “I’m the Slime” (1973) – Ben Watson: “[Zappa] was reviled for merely satirizing the ‘easy target’ of television, but it is better than that because the record is the slime, not an alternative.”
11. “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” (1968)
12. Lumpy Gravy (1967) – Like you, Jeff, I considered separate entries for We’re Only In it for the Money (and Absolutely Free, which I actually prefer), but I first heard those in CD format, well past the age when I had the patience to sit and listen to music with great concentration (left hand stroking chin, etc.). Right from the get-go I latched on to particular songs — the “hits,” so to speak. Lumpy Gravy, even moreso than Money, is designed as a take-it-all-in-at-once sort of thing, and though I certainly like it enough to list it here, I’d still appreciate a spliced-into-separate-tracks version. Don’t get me wrong; what Zappa could do with a razor blade was utterly remarkable (and a huge part of his appeal to me, no doubt).
13. “Muffin Man” (1975) – From Bongo Fury, a collaboration with Captain Beefheart, and apparently — for what it’s worth — Vaclav Havel’s favourite Zappa disc.
14. “Peaches en Regalia” (1969)
15. “Plastic People” (1967)
16. “Soft Cell Conclusion” (1967) – The 1:41 wrap up of Absolutely Free‘s vegetable mini-suite; it has weirdness, smarm, Caledonia Mahogany’s elbows (huh?), slobbering, guttural blues wails, stops and starts now let’s-get-frantic for a bit (“Oh no… the pumpkin is breathing hard!”)… pretentious, devastating stuff.
17. “Trouble Every Day” (1966) – The Watts Riot on TV, Paul Revere & the Raiders’s “Steppin’ Out” blaring from the local Top 40, the cover of Highway 61 strewn across the coffee table.
18. “Valley Girl” (Frank & Moon) (1982) – As with Zappa/disco, much to think about here, but I’ll save it for some other time. Critical song in the Zappa canon, though, and an anomalous one in many respects as well.
19. “Who Are the Brain Police?” (1966)

Some FZ albums I’ve spent a bit of time listening to, but which still feel like foreign objects to me right now (I think I need a break and/or a quiet night alone with The Ramones): Waka/Jawaka, The Grand Wazoo (I think it’s the song “For Calvin” which sounded nice?), Zoot Allures (save for “Disco Boy”), Shiek Yerbouti (pretty sure I hate “Dancing Fool,” which I haven’t relistened to), Joe’s Garage Acts I-XXIV, Jazz From Hell — you know, all the old rock-critical faves from yesteryear.

Not sure you’ve anything else to add, Jeff, but if you’re so inclined, the floor’s all yours. Thanks again for your list and thoughts.

Bread and Butter

“Lists are bread and butter to music writers; the problem with bread and butter, as we all now know post-Atkins, is that it sits in your stomach too long and makes you fat. Some of the writers here love lists, love making them, perusing them, criticising them, codifying and collating them; and some of the writers at Stylus hate lists, partly for what they represent (an attempt to mask subjective tastes as objective establishment, the stuffy domain of dullards and geeks, boredom and approval) and partly because listening to music seems like much more fun than sorting it into order. Either way though, one can’t deny the importance of them; in many ways they’re our currency, our identity, our cultural history, glimpses of where we are now so people henceforth can look back and see where we were then.”
Stylus (writer unknown), introduction to Top 101-200 Favourite Albums Ever, 2007

Fusion Critics Poll, 1972

A friend sent me this, so I’m posting it, a little nervously… more fascinating archival material.

Just one short comment: fairly delighted (and surprised) to see Pagliaro’s “Some Sing Some Dance” rank #6 on the Top 6 (!) singles list. To put this in some perspective, it apparently only needed three votes to attain that position. Still, we’re talking about a bilingual pop craftsman from Montreal, who never once cracked the Top 100 in the States. “Some Sing” has always been a personal favourite (it made my recent Top 100), and it’s odd to see it played back in this context. (Odd enough that even the Fusion eds felt the need to clarify in the introduction to the poll, “That Pagliaro song is from Canada, near as we can tell.”)

Jeff Pike’s Top 100 (+ 100 more)

Back in the ’90s, when pretty much whatever energy I still had left as a rock critic was being spilled into freebie fanzines, Jeff Pike’s Tapeworm was one of the funnest ones for me to write for. The premise was simple, and irresistible (and no doubt a wee bit quaint to anyone under the age of 30): contributors would compile a mix tape, write whatever they wanted to about said mix tape, send it to Jeff, and receive back a copy of another tape reviewed in the same issue. I think that was the premise; it’s almost 20 years now, and all my ‘zines are currently in storage. Receiving the tape in the mail was not the highlight for me in any case; it was making my mix, writing it up, and reading about everyone else’s. The other great thing about Tapeworm, for me, was that it was the third or fourth baton in the Great Fanzine Relay race of ’89-’97 (or thereabouts), following Frank Kogan’s Why Music Sucks, Phil Dellio’s Radio On, and — either right before or perhaps in conjunction with — Sarah Riegel’s Kitschener, each of which had several crossover contributors, each of which was a pleasure to read and an even greater pleasure to contribute to.

Which is all a long preamble to note some recent online music writing activity by Jeff Pike (who once wrote a terrific piece in Tapeworm on Joe Carducci, which he was kind enough to let me reprint in Popped). Can’t Explain: 100 Hit Songs is Jeff’s countdown, from 2010, of his personal favourite songs which reached the Billboard Top 40. Each selection is accompanied by its own substantial review. Can’t Explain: 100 Other Songs is the still-in-progress flipside to that: 100 more songs, 100 more reviews, though in this case, it’s “songs that never made the U.S. Billboard Top 40 — in many if not all cases didn’t even get within shouting distance of it.” The most recent entry is Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action,” which recently made my own Top 100. Here’s Jeff: “Its gentle yelps of sincerity guide the way down the path to the chorus, which soars even as it maintains almost perfectly the unassuming air, a kind of humility that comes to feel nearly spiritual across the breadth of the album, and it starts approximately right here.” (Simultaneous to all this music counting-down, Jeff is also writing a fair bit on movies.)